"Gifts from the Past: The Isabel Brown Wilson Collection" There sits in the Caroline Wiess Law Building at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston an exhibition that is equal parts art history and memoriam: "Gifts from the Past: The Isabel Brown Wilson Collection," is a connection between Wilson's love of art, her love of the history that created it and, ultimately, her love of MFAH. The exhibit reveals an interesting intersection between ancient Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian and Egyptian art and customs. The clearest connection that stands out among these ancient civilizations is status and wealth. For example, Mummy Portrait of a Young Girl, a wax piece from 30 B.C. to 100 A.D., fuses two cultures: the Egyptian practice of mummification and the Roman custom of creating portraits of the mummified. The young girl's pretty gold locket and fanciful purple robes are more than mere decoration; they tell of the upper-class stock she must have come from, since the hot wax used to make the work of art was fickle, drying quickly and requiring the artist to work swiftly, and families would pay a pretty penny for this service. There are also connections within each culture. Much of ancient Egypt's art could be used for practical purposes and then recycled into other pieces, either useful or artistic. A faience is finely ground crystal. Egyptians manipulated faience into jewelry, game pieces, furniture, bowls and cups, and later converted the crystal into small figurines that would lie with the mummified dead in the afterlife. The shabti of Tjai-en-hebu is one of three such figures on display just outside the gallery's front doors, ranging from tiny to small to medium in size. Through October 27. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300 — AO
"Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage" The man's face looks aged and weathered. Accordionist is the last vocation you would pick for him, since his wrinkled hands relay the same signs of aging; still, he holds the instrument expertly, fingers lingering over keys the way a lover's graze soft flesh. However nimble and confident his fingers may be, it is his face that catches the eye. He wears an expression of fear, and it's not hard to see why: Behind him, a tiger's body is caught in mid-pounce. His left paw is raised, his claws, unsheathed. The success of Orpheus, a painting by Kermit Oliver, is its realism, created by the expert application of acrylic oil to canvas. The acrylic oil is applied in short downward strokes, creating vertical lines that imply movement. Acrylic oil is also put on in layers, one on top of the other, making the picture look wet. Because liquids are known for their fluidity, this technique also gives the painting kinetic movement. This is what makes the man look so tight, the tiger so taut, as if he (or she) may in fact bypass Orpheus altogether and jump out of the painting toward you. "Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage" is an exhibition of 17 paintings — including Orpheus — taking up Art League Houston's front and hallway galleries. The works on display span 30 of his 40 years as a painter. Dido and Aeneas (1997) is split vertically into halves, with the left side portraying a black and bleak funeral procession. Not one to divert from the African-American lineage present in most of his paintings, Oliver paints the originally Carthaginian Dido as a black woman with long dreadlocks accessorized with golden beads. Her face has a ghostly pallor. Oliver's talent with oils is evident here also; whereas in Orpheus he made the oils wet, here he takes a wet substance and makes it look dry, like powder. Oliver is a native Texan and Texas Southern University graduate who, until a month ago, quietly sorted mail in a Waco post office. However, his Texas roots were not enough to inspire the famously reclusive painter to come to his own opening Friday evening. (Ironically, this elusiveness doesn't stop Oliver from designing a scarf every year for one of the world's most coveted couture brands, Hermès. Fancy, huh?) Despite this, Art League Houston not only exhibits Oliver, but honors him with its 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award — hermit factor notwithstanding. Through November 15. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — AO
"N U L 2 0 1 3::DOMOKOS" Houston gallery HOMELAND presents the first solo exhibition by Domokos Benczéd, an artist/musician and contributor to the experimental noise band Future Blondes. "N U L 2 0 1 3::DOMOKOS" is a large-scale installation that will evolve and change over the course of its one-month run in the gallery though ongoing performances, "noise sets" and live events. Currently on display at the gallery is what can be described as the "backbone" of the piece, which consists of mixed-media, projection, print and sculpture. The whole thing feels like a dystopian, futuristic world, especially given the gallery's stark warehouse milieu. Patrons may think that they've just drifted onto the set of the sci-fi noir film Blade Runner. Everything here is dark and broken. Given Benczéd's background as a noise creator whose music is a series of scrapes and pulses, the visual representation of his musical concepts is not surprising. It's definitely strange, enigmatic, nihilistic, perhaps even foreboding. While I can't honestly say that I "got it," it did make me think, and sometimes that is all that art needs to do. Through November 9. For more information, visit galleryhomeland.org. — AK
"Rachel Hecker: Group Show" The massive foam finger isn't even the strangest thing you see in this exhibition. Nor is the snowman, the twirling bottle of Xanax or the huge ear stuffed with a cotton ball. Indeed, the most curious thing in "Rachel Hecker: Group Show," Hecker's new exhibit at Art League Houston, is a pile of jumping peanuts atop a white column. The Peanuts (2013), which are actual edible legumes, are attached to motorized magnets, causing them to jerk and jump around at random intervals. It is these Peanuts, in their abject randomness, that define the entire exhibition, a collection of 18 sculptures and paintings that sit and hang throughout the gallery in no particular order. Yes, it is odd. But as Hecker explains, "I want to give myself more permission to do whatever occurs to me without reservation." As for the Peanuts: "I like things that are animated that shouldn't be animated." Hecker is an artist who defies artistic authority. Though her main medium is large-scale painting, she "deplores" the rigidity of it. And so, while creating series such as notes-lists 1, paintings of handwritten grocery and to-do lists, she would create odd, figurative sculptures as the ideas struck her. "Group Show" collects these off-ramp oeuvres and puts them into Art League's Main Gallery. Altogether, "Group Show" looks like the shambles of a mental meltdown. Next to the bottle of Floating Xanax is The Ear That Cannot Hear (2006), which gets a corner to itself. As it sticks to the wall, the "cotton ball" made of EPS foam sits inside its canal, so while you're doped up on meds, your auditory senses are suspended as well. The lean pink skin of Finger Statue (2013) features a freshly manicured nail on the front, a stamped happy face on back. The hanging Peppermint Air Freshener (2006) is actually wood cut into an exponentially larger model of a car air freshener, then lacquered in a red so bright that you almost catch a whiff of its advertised candy-sweet smell as it swings from the gallery ceiling — even if your thoughts are fuzzy and your ears are blocked, you can still smell. Again, odd. Prudent guests would avoid this madness, mind the Caution Cuidado (2013), the acrylic on canvas re-creation of police tape, step over the rabbit hole, and forgo the topsy-turvy world of mechanics and medicine bottles in favor of a more conventional art experience. Hecker, however — the Artist in Wonderland — jumps in fearlessly, tearing past the warning tape into a world with no limits and no rigidity — and it pays off. "Group Show" is fun and exciting, a departure from restrictive canvases of straight lines and plain colors. And that's exactly what she wants. Through November 15. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — AO
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"SPRAWL" Showing at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, SPRAWL explores the tenuous relationship with Houston geography, at once loved and loathed by citizens and non-citizens alike for its far reach and uneven plain. Co-curated by Susie J. Silbert and Anna Walker, the exhibit stretches throughout HCCC's gallery, mimicking the something-here, something-there pockets of nothing design of the Bayou City. Additionally, the 16 artists who lent their creative hands to the exhibition provide works drastically different from one another. Like Houston's diverse cultures, cuisines and ZIP codes mashed into one "sprawling" space, this clash of craftsmen works. The exhibition is divided into three sections: "Infrastructure of Expansion," "Survey, Plan, Build" and "Aftereffects." Heading up the first section are the beautiful black-and-white stalactite structures by Norwood Viviano. His Cities: Departure and Deviation (2011) illustrates the population growth of 24 cities from 1850 to 2010. The illustration was done using blown-glass cylinders of different heights, lengths and circumferences that hang from black rods attached to HCCC's ceiling. Each circumference is different, based on the population of the respective city, as is the distribution of black and/or white coloring. Most of the cylinders start out black at the bottom, then become white to represent a city's population growth over time. On the wall, a graphical representation of each city's growth is outlined in a grayish vinyl, an excellent explanation of percentage growth for the mathematically challenged. In the very center of Cities, an all-white cylinder represents the city of Houston. In 1850, the city had only 2,396 residents. By 2010, that number had skyrocketed to more than two million — 2,099,451, to be exact. The theme of work and play is present in "SPRAWL" 's "Survey, Plan, Build" section. Dustin Farnsworth combines playhouse and seesaw for Looming Genes and Rooted Dreams, while Paul Sacaridiz's An Incomplete Articulation (2011) is construction site meets jungle gym. In the same tradition, orange-and-green soccer balls lie haphazardly beside the wooden work benches in Sacaridiz's towering structure — the discarded toys of children playing near an unwieldy stack of wooden planks nod to a decision to put away childish things in favor of growth. In Julia Gabriel's art, the "Aftereffects" of expansion and building are a chic metropolis, depicted in the form of six leather backpacks. These are not just any backpacks, though, and this is not just any metropolis. Lined up side by side, they represent Congress @ Bastrop, Houston, Texas (2013). The actual street is a lineup of old buildings, and, lined up side by side, the staid color and the clunkiness of these six backpacks copy the original. On the far left, two beige backpacks are outlined in red and white trim. On the right, one lone brown backpack gets a spot. In the middle, three blue backpacks outlined in white trim stand tall — wearable mini-models of the dilapidated, graffiti-laced behemoths that sit dejectedly on Congress today. Through January 19. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — AO